The Salvation Of Black Liquid
Talking to Black Liquid is a study in extremes. His animated spiels and passionate diatribes about whatever subject he is currently monologuing about get you motivated. After talking to him for only ten minutes, you start to question your station in life. You want to work out. Or start a business. Or run a marathon. Write that novel. Clean the house. Anything productive. His energy and enthusiasm are just infectious, and they can lead you anywhere as evident by his own career and life.
Black Liquid is a lot of things. He is one of Richmond’s best hip hop artists. He teaches creative writing to kids. He hosts “Hip Hop For The Rest Of Us” on WRIR 97.3. He is an improviser. He heads up the “Richmond Is For Haters” clothing brand. And as evidenced by his 2017 Richmond TED talk, he is even an engaging motivational speaker. To the surprise of no one though, he brings the same level of passion, commitment, and energy through each one of these guises and ventures, making the real Black Liquid both accessible and guarded.
I sat down with Black, as he prefers to be called in casual conversations, initially to talk about a new video he has in the works for the song “Madness” off of 2017’s well-received Anti album, and to touch down on his forthcoming record Rapper. In the course of an almost three hour conversation, we touched on a lot of different subjects: being a teacher, depression, the history of hip hop, sobriety, improv, the evolving state of hip hop, and his thoughts on where musicians fit into the label game. Early on in that conversation, he was excited to dish about his passion that he brings to all of his projects equally.
“When survival becomes the essence of your work,” Black began, “when that imperative sense is there and you develop that as part of your actual work, it never goes away. For people who do things passively or do things on their own time, they don’t get that. Some people aren’t all the way in. I don’t do things halfway. I don’t believe in settlement — I believe in acceptance. Some people say, ‘Eh, it’s good enough.’ But if you know it’s good enough [and] it could be better, why aren’t we going for better? But that’s the way I live. Some people can’t take that shit, or they don’t understand 4 hours of sleep, 20 hours of work.”
It’s this passion for everything he does that got him noticed by Anna Golden of Sabot At Stony Point (and a fellow DJ alongside Black at WRIR) and lead to a guest speaking appearance which saw Black directly addressing students with his unique perspective and riveting delivery.
“I went and I explained how hip hop allowed me to be who I am,” Black remembered. “I was an extremely introverted kid. I was overweight, introverted, I played video games. I didn’t fit in anywhere to the point where I had convinced myself I didn’t exist. I’m a passenger in a lot of things, but I was compelled by hip hop and I found myself creating and participating in spaces where hip hop allowed us to get past all the things that didn’t make us work together as people.”
Throughout that speech, Black explained how hip hop gave him a shared camaraderie, a kinship, a feeling of belonging where he could feel connected to other people. It was a vibrant and enthusiastic keynote that inspired the folks at Stony Point to turn the guest appearance into a full-time job. They saw the potential and hope the highly passionate Black Liquid could give to the students there, leading to an experience that would be rewarding for both teacher and pupil as Black honed his philosophy on educating kids with mutual respect.
“When I found myself with the opportunity to work with children,” he recounted, “whether it’s with Art 180 or at Sabot, everywhere I go, I treat people the way I wanted to be treated when I was that age. To be treated as a person, to be treated with respect, and given the equal opportunity to say my part and be looked upon as no different from anyone else. I feel like children are put into a position to where they are always passengers when children are really the leaders. They are the ones that are guiding everything because most parents out there are doing things with the purpose of being able to do something for their kids.”
Above all else though, Black hammered home how he treats the kids fairly. “They’ll spend an entire day having to raise their hand to speak,” he continued, “having to follow all of these rules, and I can step in and be something different. I can be like ‘none of that is real.’ None of that really matters. With me, respect is real. You don’t have to go through a decorum type process to get respect or give respect. What you do need to understand is that you deserve to be heard and know who you are and say who you are because otherwise they are going to tell you who you are very early. When I go into a classroom, I love seeing them let down their guard and realize that this guy is not going to tell me to go into the corner. This guy is not going to tell me you need to do it this way. I tell them the entire world is a studio and every single person is entitled to discovering their creative process, especially through failure and error. What makes a difference is whether or not you persist.”
Black draws on his own experiences from childhood where he reformed himself from nearly becoming a dropout to converting into a student hungry for knowledge. He uses positive reinforcement in his teaching to guide students to a more positive conclusion to their energy.
“My students, I put them through the same sort of thing,” Black explained. “You disruptive? Let’s turn that disruptive behavior into something productive, and then let’s use that lens from other classrooms and curriculums to figure out that you don’t have to change who you are. You just need to accept who you are and use that as part of your approach as leverage so that you can show yourself that you are capable of handling all of the different knowledge that you’re being forced to take in. While other classes are grading you on regurgitation, what I’m grading you on is thought process. Productive thought leads to efficiency. Efficiency leads to refinement. Refinement leads to success.”
This positive energy is not relegated to his teaching life. It touches on every aspect of Black’s persona. A quick search through any of Black Liquid’s social media platforms contains so many reinforcing positive words and outlooks, they would make the best motivational speaker blush and makes him instantly stand out in today’s musical climate of apathy and coldness. Black summed up his positive world view point unexpectedly. “I think people have not realized that I am authentically one hundred percent clinically depressed. That is the reason I am positive. I know how low I am all the time and the only way it feels better is to help other people.”
His decision many years back to get sober and remain that way is a cornerstone of his existence and also helps to set him aside from his fellow musicians. Masked in outward positivity, Black Liquid has seen the dark side. More importantly, he has lived to tell his story. He continues in his torrent of motivational speak breaking only to sip his ever present Perrier.
“It’s either this or die,” he offered bluntly. “All these human problems, these feelings, these emotions, this waking up every day and wondering why the fuck am I still alive — all that is a consequence of being alive. So I’ve got to make the most of this. Because when I die none of that shit is gonna matter. If I can help someone who is dealing with one percent of the one hundred percent that I’m dealing with every day, then it’s not a waste.”
Sobriety has helped him in his art and has made his game more focused and direct, but with a new sober attitude he also had to deal with critics, ones who didn’t necessarily want to hear Black Liquid opening up.
“Everyone thought I couldn’t do this sober,” he revealed. “I quit drinking. I quit smoking two months later. My creative process hasn’t been stifled. I made that Fiona Apple album [2014’s Title, a mixtape built on Fiona Apple samples] and a lot of people were like ‘what the fuck’ because I was talking about my emotions and my feelings. But I didn’t do it because I was sober. I did it because I had never talked about that. So when I decided to inject my sobriety and thought process into what I was doing, it was interesting to see how people reacted.”
Black saw an instant shift with this approach, with new fans buzzing around it while his previous audience had a more mixed reaction as he revealed. “A person close to me wrote a review and he was like, ‘Black Liquid’s talking about relationships. Black Liquid’s talking about emotions. I don’t understand this.’ So I thought, you’re taking my contribution and me sharing my art for granted because I’m not talking about what you want me to talk about or [what] you think I should be talking about. Sobriety helped me to temper critics. It also helped me re-learn how to communicate with people. I still scare people. I just do it in a different way now.”
Sobriety brought about a sea change in Black Liquid. It was a turning point both personally and artistically. The comfort and numbness that alcohol provided, slowly gave way to a new work ethic.
“Comfort is the enemy of progress,” he bluntly stated before expounding further. “Sobriety is a great asset. Sobriety allowed me to have so few limits. Before, drinking defined my day as when you can drink, when you can smoke, when you can eat to counteract a hangover, when are you going to make another reprieve for this. Can’t drive if I can’t smoke this blunt. Can’t do this show if I can’t get ‘X’ amount of drinks. So I thought, ‘what if I don’t need all these elements?’ The only thing I really need is me and the people that inspire me and the people that work with me. What if that’s all I need? And I decided that is what I am going to rely on and I’m going to see where it goes. And that was the best decision I ever made.”
The music serves as an exorcist, a therapist, and a confessional. This is Black’s platform for letting go of what haunts him inside. The refrain from “Madness,” a track from his stellar album Anti, seems to encapsulate his sometimes dark inner demons, self-loathing and battle with sobriety. “Nothing matters but everything does / I hate being alive but I can’t stop living.” He goes even further in the title track declaring, “I am the sickness” and “High, sober / Damn, I keep changing / Growing, knowing / Nothing could ever save me / The gift of desperation / I’m in a hurry to die.”
In regards to his art, Black Liquid’s 2017 self-released album Anti seemingly is influenced by old school sources, but it also partners up with what is happening today. But he doesn’t seem to subscribe to any type of labeling or philosophy about what his style of rap is or isn’t. He is merely Black Liquid.
“We’re in a world where everything has to be labeled, compartmentalized, consumed, shit out,” he remarked. “It has to be this, it has to be that. So we can keyword search it, hashtag it. Words are always going to be approximate and labels are always going to be approximate, so if we allow those to define what something is, we’re always going to limit what it’s capable of becoming. I try to engage in different audiences out of respect and appreciation for them having the same love for this art that I do but not being limited by the way that they love it. When we went into the creative process of making that album Anti, our goal was [that] we have to make an album that these people can listen to. All the people.”
Improv is another element that informs Black Liquid’s music. When critics and people speak of improv, hip hop is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. Even though hip hop takes a back seat to jazz and experimental rock, that mentality is unfair and misguided for improvisational spirit is the foundation most of rap has been built on since its inception. In rap’s formative years, an MC was only as good as his improv game, with rap battles seeming to define who the game’s top players were. In today’s world of mumbled lyrics and vocal tracks, Black Liquid thinks MC’s can do better.
Improv is extremely important in Black Liquid’s world. On his radio show, Black constantly creates lyrics on the spot and has guests in the studio to show off their own spontaneous skills as well. After experimenting with putting improv on record, Black seems to have found a combination of improv and writing that works for him through trial and error.
Freestyle is set to define much of 2019 for Black Liquid. Each month this year, he plans to drop a mixtape of freestyles recorded at WRIR, with the first installment, NOW Vol 1, released on the last day of January. Freestyle is also set to take a huge role in his upcoming album Rapper. He has spent time in both straight freestyle phases and hard writing phases, and this new album will be a marriage of sorts between improv and writing. “I did an album called The Black Experience and that was about 80 percent all freestyle,” he explained. “So it was just like put on a beat and I freestyle over it. And then I would arrange the parts, go over it, take out imperfections, and freestyle again over it. And then I went back to straight writing because I had experienced a new shift in delivery. Then with Anti, I took that perspective to another level. And so with this new album, I have taken this free association process and that arrangement of things, mixed it with a different delivery, and then structurally kept everything not nailed to the floor. So I’m not bound by rules of writing. That’s not a rule anymore. I look at every second of a record as an opportunity.”
His approach to creating may be slightly different for Rapper than Anti, but one thing that will stay the same is his willingness and need to look at himself lyrically. “This music, this art is about capturing moments,” Black affirmed. “That’s what memories are. That’s what stories are. If your art can’t be immersive, then it’s just a product. And I didn’t get into making music for fucking product. I got into making music to tell my story, because if people can learn from my story and see what I’ve overcome and see what I’ve done with myself, imagine what they can do with their own stuff.”
Speaking of product, if you are a musician and you continue to ascend, eventually you start to think about record labels. The industry has changed significantly over the past two decades with more artists being able to get more music out into the world through the advent of social media platforms, music sharing services, and tireless self-promotion. Artists enjoy more freedom in this era to eschew the charms of a label and do it themselves. So while being on a label may have some perks, in this day and age, you don’t necessarily need that.
Anti was completely self-promoted by Black Liquid and was received favorably, though with the upcoming Rapper, Black Liquid revealed he is negotiating with a label. At this stage, he doesn’t want to divulge who that label is but “it’s a big one,” he sheepishly demurred.
“The incredible process of trying to get on a label is everybody’s dream,” he asserted. “But it’s not nearly as important as figuring out who you are and doing everything you can to get your stuff out there. And if that means having to do it all yourself, until someone else or they are like ‘you know what? I do want to break bread with you,’ all you will be doing is giving yourself more knowledge, more opportunity, and more leverage when you finally put your name on a piece of paper with somebody else and that brand become synonymous with yours.”
A sticking point though is that however this gets released, Black refuses to let a label dictate how his music is going to be expressed. “My main function is to focus on the content that I put out,” he affirmed. “Whether it comes through someone else or whether it comes directly from me and in house. I have so many options right now. Once you sign a contract, that’s all you have. I can do whatever I want. Whenever I want. So, it’s going to come out regardless, but not only the way I want, but the best way me and my people decide and who I decide to collaborate with.”
Salvation has been a long road for Black Liquid. He has shaped his experiences and his pain, and transformed them into art and music. He has battled the demons and come out on the other side, not unscathed but more knowledgeable and willing to share his experiences and insight with others. His music and lyrics have become in part, exorcism. But most importantly, this path to success is not going to define who Black Liquid is.
“I got the truth,” he proclaimed. “It doesn’t define what I need to do next. It defines how much I am capable of accomplishing. I don’t want to chase fame. Or chase money. Or chase validation. It’s simply about going through life, telling my story, putting it out, and hoping that it sticks with people, but knowing that if it doesn’t, I just have to do more. Keep trying. I’m not dead. So I got to keep living. Once I get it out, it’s no longer my burden to carry. With this album, I know I’m going to give people another picture, another window into my soul.”
Black Liquid’s latest release, NOW Vol 1, an eleven track collection of freestyles recorded at WRIR, is out now at Black Liquid’s crowded Bandcamp page. His next album, Rapper, is scheduled for release in late Spring or early Summer.
In the meantime, Black plays WRIR’s 14th Anniversary Party tonight, February 1st at The Renaissance, alongside several other local powerhouses from Unmaker to Minor Poet, as well as an RVA All-Star Comedy Showcase. Doors open at 7 PM and for more information on the show, please click here.